The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, February 4, 2018

All Things to All People” A Sermon for Epiphany V, 2018

[Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, February 4, 2018]

“I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”

The Devil has a lot to complain about. We see it in today’s Gospel, where demons are exorcised without even being given a chance to speak to Jesus “because they knew him.”

Jesus just casually heals the sick, banishes the demons, and gets on with the real business at hand: Preaching the Gospel—the Good News.

And then we have the Epistle; St. Paul will be under the law with you, if that’s where you are; he’ll be outside the law with you, if that’s where you are. And why? He says it flat out: “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”

When I first read this passage, really focused on it, in my high school religion class, I couldn’t help but think that St. Paul sounds a little bit like a con man here. We don’t generally hold people who try to be all things to all people in great respect. We value a certain integrity, a candor, even, in how people present themselves to us. And we’re not the only ones to feel that way—in the world Jesus lived in, Julius Caesar was scathingly described as having been “every woman’s man, and every man’s woman.”[1]

Nowadays, we hear a lot about “social engineering,” the human part of hacking. When you find common ground with someone, getting them to trust you, and then take advantage of that trust.

“If you look and act if you belong, and carry it with a high hand, people will assume you belong.” I had to test that back on September 11, 2001, when I found myself one of huge crowd evacuated from Reagan Airport, and a swarm of us were trapped in DC, sheltering in the Marriot lobby.

Cell phones were down, and only landlines were functioning. I stashed my luggage behind a potted plant, pulled out a leather folder, and pulling my tie into place, stalked authoritatively into the manager’s office, nodding curtly at the secretary, and made calls. I called the client who I had been in meetings with for several days, and my client and got a place to stay for the night, and she promised to let my family know I was all right.

I looked and acted like I belonged, and so everybody assumed I did.

Social engineering.

Or, if you prefer, the tricks of the con man.

It’s a little uncomfortable to think of St. Paul, becoming all things to all people. Like the prelude to a trick.

We can all admit that the motive is different, of course. Paul is acting for the good of those he engages. The end is good, whatever we think of the means. It’s all for the sake of the Gospel—but it sounds a bit manipulative, maybe.

C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape is a Senior Tempter in the bureaucracy of Hell. One of his grievances is that God does not play fair in the battle over souls. He cheats, Screwtape complains, and, worst of all, “He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created and always gives back to them with His right hand what He has taken away with His left.”[2]

Well, that’s one way of looking at it—God cheats to save us. The demons don’t get a chance to speak, for the very reason that they know the truth about Jesus. St. Paul will be anything to you to get you to hear the Gospel—for your own good, of course.

And, there is a kernel of truth in this. Jesus is, famously, a “lover of souls,” and God’s love for us is so strong that rules do get flouted in the story of salvation—Jesus saves the woman taken in adultery by the best bit of lawyering this lawyer can think of: Whoever here is without sin can start the execution. Now that’s clever. Seriously clever. Jesus turns around the vengeance seeking crowd with one sentence.

Jesus teaches us to forgive not seven times but seventy times seven times, a poetic way of saying an infinite number of times. So, yes: in Jesus’s thought, rules give way to the felt necessities of life—the Sabbath was made for us, not we for the Sabbath.

So we could say that Paul is behaving manipulatively here. And we could try to defend him through Machiavellian ethics—it’s all right to be false, as long as the people you are deceiving are led to salvation that way.

But that’s the sort of thinking that led Cardinal Newman to believe that the Church was right to persecute Galileo, or Augustine to believe that the use of torture to obtain conversions was a good thing. It’s the sort of thinking that led the theologian Father Romanus Cessario in the February 2018 issue of the prestigious religious journal First Things to defend Pope Pius IX’s kidnapping a little Jewish boy from his parents, because he had been baptized by his nanny when he was dangerously sick.

These examples should be enough to prove that this kind of thinking is pretty clearly inherently dangerous. If Augustine, Newman, and other learned and pious people can go so far astray by defending doing wrong so that good can result, we’d probably be best advised to avoid that approach.

Also, if we are agreeing with Screwtape we’ve probably gotten it wrong.

So let’s look at the Epistle again, with a more sympathetic eye. There’s a phrase that’s often used in counseling, or spiritual direction, “meeting people where they are.” It means that the counselor or spiritual director isn’t swooping in and laying down the law, but encountering the reality of the person the counselor or spiritual director is trying to help. Not sitting behind a desk or behind expertise, but listening. Building trust and not tearing defenses away too quickly.

I think that’s what Paul is doing here—it’s an extension of the lesson from last week, where we are urged to give each other a break, to “take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

Paul’s account of his ministry reflects the same notion, that his freedom, his rights, his knowledge matter less than sharing the gospel.

The King James translation is actually a bit more emphatic about the sharing than the NRSV we heard read today is. Where the NRSV simply says “ I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings,” the King James makes the sharing central: And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.

The “with you” is the critical difference, I think. Paul needs to share what he has experienced in order that he can continue to benefit from the Gospel. It’s not enough for Paul to have found his own peace and redemption through his experience of Jesus.

The harsh defender of the law who encouraged the stoning of St. Stephen has become himself a lover of souls. Maybe he’s even afraid that if he doesn’t keep sharing the experience with others, he’ll relapse into that self-righteous, legalistic frame of mind.

Or, as we say in AA, you have to give it away to keep it.

So Paul is not saying that he will lie to people if that’s what it takes to bring them to faith in Jesus. He’s saying he will enter into their experience, empathize with them, and even identify with them. After all, he was the man under the law. He knows what that’s like. He’s been the outsider—dependent on the very Christians he had come to Damascus to persecute. And, finally, he knows what it’s like to be free. He’d like to keep it that way.

You have to give it away to keep it.

Jesus doesn’t have time to talk to the demons, and they don’t really have anything to say to Him. They know Him, after all. And the demons are really beside the point. They are the shadows that obscure the real self. They have to be dealt with, but the real mission is to spread the Good News—that we are free to be children of God, free to realize our own best selves through the love of God. Jesus is too busy spreading that Good News to wallow in the darker side of our nature.

So should we be. We all have our demons—our guilts, our fears, our disappointments in ourselves in our lives. We know those skeletons in our cupboards all too well, and we can wheel them out when we need to beat up on ourselves—stir up that self-hatred.

But we can push them aside, and listen to the people around us everywhere. Instead of raging at the people who push out buttons, we can all try to identify with them, hear what they’re suffering, what’s making them angry. We can respond with kindness, even if it’s an effort and not reflecting all of our feelings at that moment. Because love isn’t an emotion; it’s a promise. And if we keep that promise even when it costs us to do so, when it hurts to do so, then we are living the promise, however we feel in the moment. And when one of them does respond, it will be from the heart.

Good advice.

I might even take it myself.

After all, you have to give it away to keep it.

In the name of Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.


[1] Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars (Trans. Alexander Thompson, revised T. Forester) (Stillwell: Digireads 2007), p. 77.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1943), p. 47.

No comments: